US proposes banking, gem trade sanctions on Myanmar

Taken from AFP, October 18, 2007

Oct 18, 2007 (AFP), The United States on Wednesday proposed more sanctions against military-ruled Myanmar Wednesday, including blocking critical access to US financial institutions via third countries.

Other measures unveiled in the US House of Representatives were intended to stop the import of Myanmar gemstones through third countries and tighten a freeze of assets on its political and military leaders.

In addition, steps will be taken to prevent US visits by officials from the military junta directly linked to a recent violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by monks.

“This legislation will turn off a huge cash spigot for the thuggish Burmese regime,” said Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House’s foreign affairs committee, who introduced the sanctions package, known as the “Block Burmese JADE (junta’s anti-democratic efforts) Act.”

Burma is the former name of Myanmar, on which the United States already imposed substantial trade, investment and diplomatic sanctions.

Amid reports that Myanmar largely used third countries to access the US banking system, Lantos said, “These overseas banks process accounts in and through the United States for Burma’s rulers, providing the regime with much-needed hard currency.

“The regime uses these funds to purchase weapons and luxury goods, while the bulk of Burma’s population lives in poverty,” he said.

In order for sanctions to be effective, the US Treasury should seek more cooperation from financial institutions in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Dubai, where most of the assets of Myanmar’s leaders are believed held, said Southeast Asian expert Bridget Welsh from the Johns Hopkins University.

Myanmar has also been reportedly circumventing a US import ban by exporting gems via third countries.

Only three percent of Myanmar’s rubies entering the United States market indicate their true country of origin, while the rest are imported via neighbors, China, Thailand and India, a statement from Lantos office said.

“There is a direct link between these blood-red gemstones and the bloodied robes of monks who were brutally suppressed when they took to the streets to demand democracy and human rights,” Lantos said.

This year, his office said, Myanmar’s military rulers would pocket more than 300 million dollars from the sale of gems, with rubies and imperial jade being the biggest money-makers.

In the last year, it said, Myanmar’s income from gem exports increased 45 percent.

The United States on Wednesday also sought UN Security Council intervention in case Myanmar’s military rulers rebuff plans by a UN special envoy to push for democratic rule in the Southeast Asian state.

Washington also called for global pressure on Myanmar to allow the swift return of special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to pave the way for a dialogue between the military junta and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities.

“Should the regime turn its back on special advisor Gambari’s proposals, we believe the matter should be referred back to the Security Council for further consideration,” US deputy assistant secretary of state Scot Marciel told a congressional hearing.

He said the United States was working with Gambari and Asian nations to enable his “rapid” return to Myanmar following the junta’s appointment of a moderate general to promote dialogue between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi.

There has been no indication of when the dialogue would take place.

Gambari met Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, and military strongman Than Shwe during a lightning visit last month to convey international outrage over the regime’s violent suppression of anti-government rallies that left at least 13 people dead.

Gambari, currently on a regional tour, said Wednesday he had confirmed an invitation to visit Myanmar by the third week of November but US officials said he should be allowed in much earlier due to the seriousness of the crisis.

The UN Security Council last week scolded the junta for its bloody crackdown on protests, and urged the regime to heed the UN’s calls for talks and called for the release of political prisoners.